Blue Jays Notebook: Shoulder issues kept Pentecost off 40-man roster

Blue Jays catching prospect Max Pentecost. (Icon Sportswire/AP)

TORONTO – Catching prospect Max Pentecost, a notable omission when the Toronto Blue Jays set their 40-man roster earlier this week, was shut down during the final of the Arizona Fall League because of pain in his right shoulder.

The setback for the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft helps explain why he wasn’t protected ahead of next month’s Rule 5 draft, the team surely calculating that with Pentecost’s injury history and staggered development, he’s unlikely to be selected, and less likely to stick for a full big-league season if chosen.

The Blue Jays also added catching prospects Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire to a 40-man roster that already included Russell Martin and Luke Maile, and carrying five catchers is a sub-optimal set-up.

“Ultimately we have to decide what we feel is the best chance for us to keep the most talent in our organization,” was how Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins described the decision, adding later: “We’ll have plenty of time for (Pentecost) to become that person for us.”

Pentecost was behind the plate eight times in 21 days from Oct. 11-31 with the Peoria Javelinas in the AFL, his busiest stretch at catcher since his injury troubles began three years ago. He caught once more, Nov. 7, before missing the final eight games of the AFL schedule.

The return of shoulder pain for the 24-year-old came after he logged 167 innings over 19 games with single-A Dunedin and one rehab contest with the rookie level GCL Blue Jays. The defensive innings were his first since he was injured soon after he signed with the Blue Jays in 2014 and joined short-season A Vancouver, leading to shoulder surgeries that fall, in spring 2015 and the following fall.

Pentecost returned as a DH only in 2016 to help him catch up on at-bats, and this past season his workload at catcher was parcelled out carefully between time at first base and DH. An advanced hitter, he slashed .276/.332/.434 with nine homers and 23 walks in 316 plate appearances.

In the AFL, Pentecost caught on back-to-back days for the first time since the initial injury, entering a game in the sixth inning as a pinch-hitter Oct. 30 before starting and going the distance the next two days.

“He was shut down from throwing at the end of the season,” said Atkins. “We’re continuing to work hard to help Max be in the best possible physical shape and baseball shape he can be in. He’s worked tirelessly with our high performance and player development departments to have a very, very strong 2017. Having said that, we’re still experiencing times when we have to pull back and he is not at the point where he can play at 100 per cent and there are times when we have to have him DH instead of catch on a regular basis.”

Hunt for pitching

This week on Sportsnet’s At the Letters podcast with Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling, general manager Ross Atkins once again mentioned that the Blue Jays want to complement their pitching staff “in some significant way.”

“That could be a guy that’s a fourth, fifth calibre starter, or an elite reliever, or some hybrid of those two,” he said.

A complement to the bullpen makes sense and a reunion with Joe Smith to help bridge the gap from Ryan Tepera and Dominic Leone to closer Roberto Osuna is a logical fit. But given that Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are free agents after the 2018 season, there’s uncertainty with Aaron Sanchez until his blister issues are definitively in the past and Joe Biagini’s ultimate role remains up in the air, adding a reliable starter with some control beyond next season is probably more of a priority.

Adding more probability behind Marcus Stroman beyond 2018 can fairly be described as a real need, even with prospects like Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and 2016 first-rounder T.J. Zeuch possibly ready by then, if not sooner.

In the best-case scenario, the Blue Jays will probably need to add two starters, and even if they embark on a soft reset for 2019 with Josh Donaldson also a pending free agent next fall, they’ll have to protect their young pitchers some way.

Trading for starters is always difficult and landing them in free agency can be even tougher, as pitching in the AL East isn’t exactly a selling feature. Still, putting a mid-market arm in place like the reliable Lance Lynn or Jason Vargas or high-upside Alex Cobb serves both the present and the future while Tyler Chatwood could fill the hybrid role Atkins described.

Chris Tillman or Wade Miley are potential value-play, one-year stop gap types that have also been kicked around, but that would only cover this year, not next.

Roster redundancy

During the GM Meetings last week, Atkins dropped an intriguing little nugget when he said, “With the emergence of Justin Smoak, now in thinking of how we’re going to get the most out of every single person on our roster, we need to consider every avenue for that.”

What makes that so intriguing?

Well, the Blue Jays have a lot of roster redundancy at first base/DH right now between Smoak, Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales, who was signed to a $33-million, three-year deal last fall. The expectation at the time was that three would split time at first base and DH with Pearce getting the occasional reps in left, too, but when Smoak emerged as an all-star, the equation changed.

Smoak will enter 2018 as the obvious everyday first baseman and given the injury issues the Blue Jays experienced last year, they’d be better off being able to spread their DH days around the roster. That would make Morales the ideal candidate to be moved, but the market for DH-only types is limited, especially with two years and $23 million on the books.

Pearce would likely have more value to a team looking for a good right-handed bat that’s especially productive against left-handed pitching, but trading him does less to help in maximizing others on the roster.

Regardless, that logjam is something to keep an eye on as the off-season progresses.